Resolution Number 9
“May all your troubles last as long as your New Year’s resolutions.” ~ Joey Adams
It was the time of year that fatigued my father most. Christmas was a brakeless, high speed joy ride down a boulevard of excess – the profligate purchasing of gifts, a succession of business and neighborhood parties, a month long garland of decorations, and sheer exhaustion that weighed you down like lard laden fruitcake. The week between Christmas and New Years arrived like the eye of a hurricane offering a momentary respite where we might reconstruct our predictable November routines and gather up the debris of December celebration.
The dead calm worried my father. He knew the toll the holidays took on my mother. Like a seasoned meteorologist, he knew the back half of the holiday storm still packed high emotional winds and potential for damaged feelings. He was useless at this time of year. This generation of men in grey flannel suits were as relevant as flightless dodo birds when separated from their workplace. The normal midweek rhythms of my mother’s matriarchal rule were shattered when five men were suddenly home and idle. It was an extreme time that exaggerated the normal warts and imperfections of life. The soiled laundry and dirty dishes grew in geometric proportions. The perfect storm of lazy teenagers on vacation coupled with a husband who kept saying “ whaah?” with a mouth full of food, seemed to only increase steam in the family pressure cooker. In a startling role reversal worthy of anthropological study, mother and father temporarily switched places.
Mom would shock us with a sudden flash of impatience or an actual curse-word. We thought only fathers swore. She would talk to herself as she picked up clothes that had been littered as if the owners had all caught fire. She began to exhibit all the signs of a person ill with the radiation poisoning from broken routines, serial thoughtlessness and excessive family time. My father was bewildered. Only he held the tenured role of moody shape shifter and mercurial overlord. It was my mother’s role to be a placid lake of restraint and a predictable oasis that offered protection to all from the rise and fall of the testosterone barometer. When she was in a foul mood, the entire equilibrium of the family unit was destabilized. We all prayed it would not result in one of her resolutions.
Despite our best efforts to navigate my mother’s eggshells and landmines, someone would inevitably trigger an invisible trip wire and there would be an explosion of self pitied emotion and dreaded pronouncements. The catalyst may have been as prosaic as a freshly laundered towel thrown into the hamper after just one shower or a half-gallon of milk left out to sour. As myopic men, we did not understand that her cumulative frustration was like magma rising into a volcanic chamber. Our chronic insensitivity and my father’s inability to protect her as domestic wingman created the fissure that would trigger a sudden and violent eruption – sometimes heard several blocks away.
Her new year’s pronouncements were communicated like a centurion announcing an edict from Caesar. “In direct response to my repeated attempts to get you boys to hang up your towels, put away your laundry or refrain from eating all the lunch snacks, we will now do the following: 1) The linen closet will be locked with a pad lock Monday through Friday and you will not be issued a new towel until Saturday. 2) You are now responsible for your own laundry. I suggest you wash and fold it over the weekend. 3) You will now make your own lunches and if you forget to make your lunch, you will go hungry. “ She was angry and defiant. We glanced at our father. If you had looked up the word “eunuch” in Webster’s dictionary, his facial expression would have been the word’s illustration. Earlier in the day, she had given him a “ detailed” list of complaints and resolutions that got his complete attention. He simply looked at us and said, “She who must be obeyed has spoken.” For her sudden surge of feminism, Gloria Steinem would have pinned a medal on Mom. Hell hath no fury than a mother when she has had enough.
We dreaded her resolutions especially those involving food and logistics. “We are all going to eat healthy”, she declared one New Year’s Day. This translated into several weeks of culinary experiments whose nadir was a dinner menu featuring brussel sprout soup ,“pizza fish” and flavored tofu cake. Even the dog would not eat it. Other resolutions included a transportation pool where each child was allowed a maximum two car rides a week. This lead to a black market of transportation credits being swapped by boys with the laziest paying dearly for someone else’s passenger slot. There were mandates for time to be spent studying, playing games, showering, talking on the phone, and playing sports. There was even talk of removing all toilet seats after a near-sighted teen had failed to put the seat up in her bathroom for the fifth consecutive day. This gave rise to much speculation – was she actually going to carry her own seat around with her?
The first week following any declaration was a pathetic black comedy as the four blind mice struggled with their new responsibilities – – washing colored and white laundry together to produce a whole line of shrunken pink and gray clothing. Lunches were routinely forgotten. Laundry was not really folded but instead chewed and shoved like wads of gum into drawers guaranteeing that when worn, one looked as though they had been dragged behind a Chevy truck. Inevitably, martial law softened. Her resolutions had the life expectancy of a housefly. We were pitiful recidivists and she knew it. The day one heard, “ here, let me do that!” was the moment that we knew that sanity was being restored.
As we married and formed our own families, my father bore the brunt of Mom’s annual fiats around health, fitness, and life. He became a human lab rat being subjected to the latest new age cures that hawked salt free diets, pyramid power to preserve food, biorhythm devices to monitor one’s life waves, erogenous zones and transcendental meditation. Dad would sneak cheeseburgers and Cokes like an alleyway addict while quietly complaining to us that new age communists had invaded his home. He finally drew a line in the sand when she suggested that regular colonic cleansing would do wonders for his temper. We would remind him that her brief but inspired storms of self-improvement would eventually pass and might even do him some good. He would grumble like Lurch from the Addams Family and shuffle off hoping that the current fiber diet he was on would not take him too far from a restroom.
Years later, we find ourselves making these same declarations to our kids. More exercise, less fatty foods, Sunday dinners together, reading more, less TV, one hour of computer time strictly regulated, no chores means no allowance… Our declarations and good intentions stretch like a long kite string across a sky of generations. Like my mother, my resolve weakens as the reward of behavior modification is always overpowered by the hassle of resolution enforcement. As I write this, my kids rooms look like the KGB has just finished an illegal search, dinner dishes have been abandoned on the table, the trash has not been put out, the dog is gnawing on a pair of sunglasses and my ten year old has been playing a computer game called Spore for three days straight. I could swear he has a five o’clock shadow. I can also feel the magma growing in my spouse.
It’s time for one of those New Year’s resolutions. “Ok, you guys, starting January 2nd, there’s going to be a few changes around this place – starting with bedtime and limits on the computer.” I get no response. In fact, no one is looking up from their cell phones where they are text-messaging friends. “Uh, sure Dad, whatever you like, say”, someone mutters absentmindedly to their chest. I realize I, too, have become the emasculated reformer. I think it’s time to call my Mom and ask her for her recipe for pizza fish, brussel sprout soup and tofu cake.
That ought to get their attention.